Tradition vs. Traditionalism: Worship, Idolatry, and the Heart

Zac HicksWorship Style3 Comments

Part of the reason Lent exists is for us to confront our sin and idolatry head-on… 

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” – Jaroslav Pelikan, U.S. News & World Report, June 26, 1989

When God called me to my church almost four years ago, I sensed that a primary call of mine would be to help pastor our congregation, both corporately and individually, away from traditionalism and toward a Christ-centered embrace of tradition.  I’ll be candid in my analysis of the situation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are one of the last standing evangelical churches with vibrant traditional worship.1  To be sure, there are churches in Denver with strong traditional worship, but most of them do not have evangelical pulpits.  And certainly there are churches in Denver with committed, orthodox preaching, but almost all of them are “contemporary,” stylistically.  This puts us in a very peculiar place because, as evangelical churches have swung away from traditional worship, we have become a haven for what I call “evangelical traditionalist refugees”—people whose hearts most intimately connect with traditional worship who have no other place to go for evangelical preaching.  (There are, of course, many things to lament about how deeply embedded consumerism is in the evangelical psyche, such that we find ourselves in this place, but that is for another time and another post.)

The net effect of our church being a Traditionalist Refugee Camp is that, left unchecked, this has a hardening effect on the ethos and mindset of our people.  Our worshipers have often left their previous churches scarred, alienated, and hurt.  They therefore enter our doors with pain and sometimes a chip on their shoulder.  They find like-minded commarades—a community which shares their values and sensibilities—and they tend to, often in private conversation or small groups, disparage other forms and expressions of worship.  The deep wounds feed fear of change.  Fear of change begins to grip the heart, and a healthy appreciation of tradition is corrupted into a worship of tradition.  This is traditionalism.

The difference between tradition and traditionalism is an issue ultimately of the heart.  Tradition is a beautiful thing.  In fact, tradition is necessary to truly be the Church.  The Church, at any point in time, must recognize that it is a trans-temporal community.  Saints who have gone before and saints who will follow are, ongoingly, our brothers and sisters.  One of the reasons we embrace Church tradition is simply because it is part of what it means to truly be the Church.  To ignore tradition would be to cut ourselves off from a huge part of the body of Christ, the “catholic Church” (in the words of the Apostles’ Creed).  But, as Tim Keller has said time and again, idolatry occurs when we take good things (like tradition) and make them ultimate things. 

How can one know when tradition has been corrupted into traditionalism?  It’s all about symptoms which betray the root disease.  Symptoms can include:

  • reaction of fear, defensiveness, or anger when any deviation from the norm takes place
  • an unloving or judgmental attitude toward those who do not embrace tradition as you do
  • a persistent need to speak your mind about the matter to and with others
  • a strong penchant toward defending tradition at every turn
  • comments which use possessive and personal pronouns: “what speaks to me,” “what I love,” “my preferences,” etc.

What is the cure?  The cure is only apparent when an adequate diagnosis is given.  We could encourage traditionalists to “be more loving” or to, in the words of Philippians 2, “consider others better than yourselves.”  We could preach against the sins of bitterness, fear, and wrongly-expressed anger.  But none of these things get at the heart of the matter.  The issue lies at the throne of the heart.  If tradition reigns on the throne of your heart, you will defend it at any cost.  You will find fault with anyone who challenges it.  You will protect it as a loyal servant would his or her lord and master.  You will judge those who do not equally revere it as you do.  Lords, masters, and kings demand that kind of allegiance.  The diagnosis, then, is ultimately misplaced affection.  You love tradition more than you love Jesus.  No, you would never say that, because, theologically, you know that’s wrong.  But your actions betray what’s truly in your heart.

When Christ is on the throne of your heart, tradition cannot be corrupted into traditionalism.  Christ reigns, without peer.  When we love Christ more than tradition, we can say, “Though I don’t go hog-wild over repeating refrains, drums, blocks of songs, and electric guitars, I recognize that some are freed up to engage with God there, and I’m not going to break fellowship over it.  I’m going to sing alongside my sister, giving it my best.” And by the way, this goes both ways.  When it comes to worship, if the gospel is taking root in a community of faith, we will see the kind of mutual submission described in Ephesians 5.  We will see people joyfully laying down their preferences.  The lion will lie down with the lamb, babies will play in snakes’ dens, and traditionalists will worship with contemporary folks.  We will see contemporary folks laying down their idolatries of, in the words of T. David Gordon, “contemporaneity-as-a-value” (i.e. what’s new is what’s best) and embracing tradition because they love all of Christ’s body.   


1 The label “traditional” is nearly as broad and nebulous as “contemporary,” of course, and I share a grief over the deficiencies of these terms and over the division in Christ’s church that such polarization has caused.  Nevertheless, I haven’t found better terms to use as I seek to speak into this issue.  Our traditional worship, if I can speak in spectral terms, puts us on the 75-mark between “low church traditional” (0; more Baptistic/revivalistic) and “high church traditional” (100; more Anglican/classical/liturgical).  So our service tends to have a Presbyterian liturgical structure, a more classically-oriented stylistic expression with choir and organ, alongside occasional revivalistic expressions.

3 Comments on “Tradition vs. Traditionalism: Worship, Idolatry, and the Heart”

  1. Amen! Zac, I couldn't agree more. This post cuts right to the heart of a very important issue. Well said.

  2. I have spoken on the difference between "traditional" and "traditionalism" for quite a while, and it is my desire to lead my congregation toward heartfelt, engaged, vibrant traditional corporate worship.

    Blessings to you, friend.

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